The Kissimmee Skycoaster

Ride It And Know What It Means To Look The Devil In The Eye.

Friends, family and curious strangers alike often ask me what's the single scariest thrill ride I've ever encountered and it's high time to fess up with an unequivocal answer: The Kissimmee Skycoaster. Its operators humbly call this stand-alone attraction the "Tallest Thrill Ride in Florida," but that bit of hype actually undersells it. Not only is this Skycoaster taller, by a shocking degree, than any other scream machine in the Sunshine State, it's the tallest of its kind anywhere on earth. Dig this, my brothers and sisters: the Kissimmee Skycoaster measures three hundred feet in height.

I almost couldn't bring myself to do it.

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Bill Kitchen is the man we can thank for cooking up the Skycoaster. An accomplished pilot, hot air balloonist and pro-rated skydiver (with more than 500 jumps to his credit), Kitchen knows well the exhilaration of soaring to - and falling from - great heights. Up until 1990, he had worked in the broadcasting industry building radio and television stations. That year, however, he took the plunge into the world of thrill-mongering and got his feet wet in the bungee jump business, just like Stan Checketts of S&S Power. And also like Checketts, Kitchen soon moved on to bigger and better things. Despite his spotless bungee jump safety record, Kitchen decided he wanted to create a new type of skydiving thrill ride with less inherent risk than that particular recreation.

Like so many flashes of genius, Kitchen's grand scheme started as a quick sketch on a dinner napkin. What he envisioned was not a bungee-style vertical drop but an acrobatic swoop through a radial flight path, with passengers suspended from heavy-duty steel cables. Anywhere from one to three riders at a time would climb into custom-designed "flight suits" and get winched backwards to the top of a launch tower. His finest inspiration: at the peak, one rider would pull a rip cord, releasing them from the winch cable and initiating the trajectory. Kitchen went on to build a scale model in his living room, enlisting toy soldiers as test pilots, and once satisfied that the concept was practical, he drew up detailed plans for a 100-foot-tall prototype. The Skycoaster was born.

The original Skycoasters he sold hung their swing cables from a portable crane, but Kitchen soon designed a galvanized steel arch, capable of withstanding 140 mile per hour winds, that would serve as the attraction's primary structure. In 1993, Super Speed Fun Park of Panama City Beach, Florida purchased the first of these permanent, arch-supported 100-footers and additional orders rushed in from locations in the U.S. and as far away as Brazil, Cyprus, Great Britain, Japan and Kuwait. In 1994, Kennywood took delivery of a 180-foot-tall unit, the first to be constructed inside a major amusement park. Not too long after, MGM Grand Adventures theme park in Las Vegas broke the 200-foot barrier with its SkyScreamer, accurately described by Dan Wade, MGM Grand's President and CEO, as "a no guts, no glory, must-ride attraction." That monster rose 250 feet, dropping riders from a 220-foot apogee. Within five years after Kitchen's maiden Skycoaster took flight, more than 70 were in operation around the globe. And MGM's SkyScreamer didn't hold its record long; Kissimmee's 300-footer was unveiled in November of 1997. Since then, no one has dared to ask for one bigger.

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Old Town, in Kissimmee (that's "Kiss-EM-me," not "KISS-em-me," as I repeatedly pronounced it), is not what you'd call one of Central Florida's most heart-racing amusement centers. A touristy little shopping promenade, Old Town does tempt us with a compact steel coaster called the Windstorm (pictured at left), a cool walk-through haunted house, a Ferris wheel, a couple of "spin 'n' spew" flat rides and some assorted kiddie rides. Not bad, really, but it's the kind of family entertainment center you can find in cities all over America. And with Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and so much more just a hop, skip and a jump away, Old Town sorta pales in comparison. But for the iron-willed Ride Warrior, it will always be part of any go-for-the-jugular junket. For standing right next to Old Town, and looming far above it, is That Big White Thing.

Even though you can see it from miles away, it's not until you're standing directly beneath this Skycoaster that you can appreciate its overwhelming presence. Straddling the reflective waters of a man-made pond, two whitewashed obelisks rise at gentle angles to be joined at the top by a pair of horizontal braces. The single vertical launch tower rises behind the main arch at the far end of the lagoon, aircraft warning beacons rhythmically flickering at each summit. A soft, green meadow undulates around the water's edge. If one can temporarily forget the vile intentions behind its design, the entire apparatus is beautiful, in a stark, commanding way.

But then you watch as some poor fool (or gathering of fools) is fastened to the cables hanging from the A-frame support and slowly hauled up through the ether, only to fall, shrieking with unabashed terror. Yeah, it sure is beautiful... like a gold-plated guillotine.

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Riders first make their reservations in a little office on the observation deck. A ticket for myself and the equally disturbed pal who "flew" with me came to $64.00. Yes, it ain't cheap, but take my word; it's money well spent. (I should also mention that when located inside pay-one-price amusement parks, Skycoasters are "upcharge" attractions, meaning that they require a separate expense to ride there, as well).

For an additional fee, you can buy a videotape of your experience, but I vetoed that idea. I figured that if I fainted, lost control of my bowels, or something worse, it wasn't anything I'd need to watch over and over again. While they sent my credit card number off for authorization, my flight partner and I stood at the window and gazed out at the view. That's when he first noticed the radar gun and digital numeric panel; as riders achieve maximum velocity at the bottom of the swing, the gun measures and displays their speed. Nice touch. But know this: my buddy spent many years with Ringling Bros. performing as a trapeze and human cannonball artist and even he was unnerved. "You pull the rip cord, okay?" I pleaded.

We didn't have to wait at all before riding and in hindsight, that was beneficial; with more time to think it over, I'd have probably turned tail and run. After grabbing our tickets, we strolled down a walkway alongside the pond to the pre-flight shed and, gingerly putting one foot in front of the other, I began to get a little light-headed. Maybe it wasn't too late to change my mind...

Inside the shed, we're fitted into the flight suits. The harnesses are laid face down on the floor and we step into a pair of fabric loops at the bottom. The attendants lift the harnesses up and tell us to shimmy through a web of black straps until our shoulders hit the pads at the top. They then move behind us and do some custom-tailoring, cinching and tightening the suit all the way down our backs. The fit is pretty snug, both comforting and unsettling. I learned after the fact that Federal Aviation Administration-approved parachute manufacturers assemble Skycoaster formal wear and that the metal cables to which we were about to entrust our lives can bear loads up to 9000 pounds. Unfortunately, I didn't have that consoling information at the time.

Once we're bundled up, the attendants hand us a small plastic rod at the bottom of the harness to carry and we shuffle out to a blue booth directly beneath the arch. Treading unsteadily to that little enclosure, I felt like I was on my way to the gallows. One ride operator asked who was going to pull the rip cord. Without a second's hesitation, my friend said, "He will." Swell.

Once we're inside, the door is closed and a hydraulic scissor-lift mechanism beneath the booth begins to lift us up to meet the cables. Being that I was the one to trigger the actual descent, I was told to stand on the right. The attendants again work behind us, rigging the swing and hoist cables to our flight suits. We step onto the rods at our feet and are given the final instructions. "Lock your arms together and keep them locked during the free fall. Once you're past the base of the arch, you can spread your arms. Wait till you hear me say 'Three, two, one, Fly,' then pull the rip cord." Suddenly, we lurch into a prone position, dangling face-down off the floor like so much raw meat.

The booth drops. We start to lift away. And my entire body begins to tremble.

The pond, the grassy surroundings, Old Town, all of Kissimmee slowly recedes. One hundred feet: "This isn't so bad, yeah, I'm okay..." One hundred and fifty feet: "Wow, we're pretty high, aren't we..." Two hundred feet: "As God is my witness, I will never, ever, do this again."

It takes a good, long while before the crest of the swing arch begins to come into view and still there's plenty of climbing to do. The blue booth where we boarded is now the size of a postage stamp. Looking back down, the base of the rear launch column is finally visible; we're getting close. With the harness drawn tight around my ribcage, I can't even muster the strength to whimper, much less scream.

Eventually, the top of the gargantuan A-frame tower is directly in front of us and at long last, we stop rising. We're about 300 feet above the earth, lying flat, face down. And there's only one way to end this intolerable agony. I think of those dear to me; please, whoever up there is listening, just let me see them one more time...

"Three, two, one, fly."

I manage to find the orange rip cord handle with my quivering fingers and give it a tug. With almost no effort, it pulls free.

Bombs away.

Instantly, our feet rise and our heads drop before the swing cables catch the slack. For one revolting second, we're in total freefall, our bodies completely vertical. And now, I could scream. Like a newborn. They must've heard me in Toledo.

The cable pulls taut and our skulls tip back up. Faster and faster we dive, slashing through the atmosphere like Icarus, melted wings and all, roaring towards certain doom. As my life flashes before my eyes, we surge down towards the planet's crust and before I know it, our outstretched forms are whistling past the bottom of the swing radius. The radar gun clocks our airspeed: 76 miles per hour.

As we begin regaining altitude, I realize that I'm not going to expire. Horror dissipates. Soaring back up, my pal and I extend our arms and ecstasy radiates through every cell in my body; we're flying... we're flying! We reach the opposite zenith, pause, and then swoop back down, gliding with all the majesty of eagles. Back and forth we flow through the air... It's like nothing I've ever experienced before and I want it to go on forever.

Of course, it can't; after each pass through the arch, the height of the swing diminishes. Eventually, the ride attendants extend a pole with a loop for us to grab and they pull us back to the dock.

Once we were out of the harnesses and back on solid ground, I was still pretty shaky, no question about it. But my vow to keep off Skycoasters forever was long forgotten.

Do this one again, though? Yeah, someday... But not today.

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In 1998, Kitchen sold the Skycoaster to ThrillTime Entertainment International, Inc. and went on to develop his latest high-tech machine, the SkyVenture® "Virtual Reality Skydiving Simulator." Housed inside an upright tube and powered by a spinning airplane propeller, the SkyVenture is a vertical-lift wind tunnel that generates a column of air mighty enough to allow "skydivers" to hover above it. The basic concept for such attractions isn't new, but existing vertical-lift wind tunnels create an upward thrust with greatest pressure in the center of the air flow. Divers must carefully maintain their position at that point; otherwise, they're tossed out of the flow. Kitchen's all-new computer-assisted design creates a blast of air with greatest pressure at the edges of the jet stream, allowing a total novice to safely and pleasurably hover for as long as they desire.

Better still, different virtual reality "environments" are projected onto a 120-degree screen in front of the divers, adding to the thrill. Participants can choose to leap out of a plane, jump off a bridge, even drop out of the space shuttle. Pretty cool, no?

Kitchen's first SkyVenture opened in Orlando, and he hopes to open more around the country soon. And he also told me that he's working on still more concepts for new thrill rides. Color me psyched.

Before we bring this to a close, a final reality-warping reminder: Kitchen has stated on several occasions that Skycoasters can indeed be built taller than the Kissimmee model.

Do ya think you have the nerve to ride a 500-foot-tall Skycoaster?

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The Kissimmee Skycoaster

  • TOP SPEED: Approx. 76 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. HEIGHT: 300 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: The longest minute and a half of your life
  • CAPACITY: Up to 3 Flyers per Drop
  • MANUFACTURER: ThrillTime Entertainment International, Inc.





© Robert Coker.
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